TORRINGTON — June 19, 1865, two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Va. Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War ended and they were free.
It was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation.
For years, June 19th has been an annual holiday celebrated by African-Americans commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
The name of the holiday, Juneteenth, is a combination of the month June and the date, 19.
On Thursday, June 17, 156 years after the holiday was first celebrated, President Joseph R. Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come,” President Biden said in his prepared remarks. “This is a day of profound, in my view, profound weight and profound power. A day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take — what I’ve long called ‘America’s original sin.’ At the same time, I also remember the extraordinary capacity to heal, and hope, and emerge from the most painful moments and a bitter, bitter version of ourselves, but to make a better version of ourselves. You know, today, we consecrate Juneteenth for what it ought to be, what it must be: a national holiday.”
Two days later, Saturday, June 19, Juneteenth celebrations were held in Torrington.
In the afternoon, an unveiling of a Civil Rights mural on Water Street, featuring Martin Luther King Jr Abolitionist John Brown, and poet Amanda Gorman was held (see separate story).
In the morning, a Juneteenth commemoration ceremony was held at City Hall.
At the beginning of the event, which was sponsored by the Torrington Cultural Affairs Committee, African-American Mayor for the Day Shante Reynolds raised the Juneteenth flag on the City Hall’s flag pole.
Reynolds was named African-American Mayor for the Day earlier this week by the committee and was honored by Mayor Elinor Carbone and residents throughout the day’s events.
She is an active member of the Torrington community, serving on the city’s Public Schools Equity Committee, and as a member of the Living Water Ministries Church.
Reynolds is currently pursuing an Associate’s Degree as a Registered Nurse at Northwestern Connecticut Community College.
In her speech, Reynolds said that America still has a long way to go when it comes to civil rights, especially in light of recent events.
“On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd after making a purchase with a counterfeit bill,” Reynolds said. “Police pinned Mr. Floyd by kneeling on his neck for a prolonged period, even after he cried out ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Floyd died shortly after he was transferred to a hospital for treatment.
“About 15 million people broke out in protests just hours after his last breath,” she said. “The Black Lives Matter movement was tremendously enhanced worldwide with 26 million people participating in countries including Sweden, Japan, Spain, and the United States. Last year on June 19, the world participated in a silent blackout to honor Juneteenth.”
Reynolds, 33, has African-American, Cherokee Indian, and Irish ethnicity, and her 12-year-old daughter is half-Dominican.
“My family and I do not see in colors, but unfortunately sometimes, that’s not how some people look at us,” Reynolds said. “As a young girl growing up in T-town, I remember at one point we were able to count all of the black, Hispanic, and West Indian families. There are not that many of us. When I was in school, comments were made to me by my classmates such as ‘You’re kind of pretty for a black girl.’ and ‘Your mom is white, so you must have been adopted.’ My very Irish mom told me not to worry. She said that one day I would be able to recognize my purpose and how special it is that I am also African-American. I am proud to stand here today as a multi-race woman among this melting pot of culture that Torrington is evolving into. However, as we know as one of the fundamental causes of recognizing Juneteenth is due to the discrepancy between beliefs and values.”
Reynolds’ daughter attends Torrington Middle School.
However, Reynolds said that when she was in third grade “her peers and classmates began to treat her differently.”
“Some of this started after the teaching of racial segregation and slavery during Black History Month,” Reynolds said. “She was pushed and was told it was because she was black, and kids began to tease her and tell her that she would be taken away from me. My 8-year-old daughter asked me if we could buy her teacher a present so that her teacher would be nicer to her. 20 years later, my child was still experiencing similar situations that I had encountered. The teacher presented an age-appropriate book about Martin Luther King Jr., stating that it was standard teaching for Black History Month. But let me ask you a question: does standard teaching mean that it is situationally appropriate? Does treating people only equally, and not with equity, meet the needs of our community? Absolutely not. Juneteenth is imperative, and significant, especially in this modern day time to break out of the habit of standard teaching.”
Reynolds said that it was beneficial for young children to be taught about diversity.
“It helps prevent culture shock,” she said. “Schools have begun to recognize not only negative circumstances that need to be overcome, but also how positive influences, like Kobe Bryant, and Chadwick Boseman, are people that all cultures can relate to.”
Reynolds said that it was an honor for Torrington to be John Brown’s birthplace.
She called Juneteenth “education and freedom against hate and division.”
“Juneteenth is unity, cultural sensitivity, love, evolution, growth, peace, and hope,” Reynolds said. “Juneteenth is the future.”